Setting realistic goals and tracking your progress are effective ways to reach a healthier weight.

Setting and tracking your weight loss goals are powerful tools on your journey to meaningful, lasting weight loss. Charting your progress can keep you motivated. And looking at how far you’ve come can help reassure you when you have setbacks.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) puts “setting the right goals” at the top of the list of steps for getting to a healthy weight. And multiple research studies show that setting goals for weight loss helps you succeed in losing weight. Research also shows people motivated by health and fitness over appearance were more likely to keep up with weight loss efforts over time.

This article will provide more detail on goals that might work for you in your weight loss journey and how research shows that setting specific goals can help you stay on track when working toward weight loss.

The NHLBI suggests starting with 5–10% of your current weight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found that those who aim for steady and gradual weight loss are more likely to keep it off. The CDC recommends losing no more than 1–2 pounds per week.

In general, weight loss comes down to numbers.

If you eat 500 fewer calories than you use each day, you’ll lose a pound each week. But achieving that gap is different for each person. That’s because weight, age, genetics, gender, activity level, and other factors determine how many calories you need. Here are some ways to set goals to achieve that gap.

Research supports goal setting as a way to set yourself up for success.

A 2023 study looked at 36,794 people in a weight loss program and found that those who set the highest goals were less likely to drop out of the program after 24 weeks. People motivated by health and fitness over appearance were also less likely to drop out, although the authors said more study is needed.

Another 2016 study of 35,380 people in a weight loss program found that people who set goals, even ones that seemed ambitious or ‘unrealistic,’ were more successful in their efforts than those who didn’t set goals at all. On average, they lost 65% more weight over a year than those who did not set goals.

Many healthcare organizations recommend setting goals that are specific and realistic. The NHLBI also says goals should be “forgivable,” which means “less than perfect.” It’s OK to have setbacks or not meet your goals sometimes.

You can also focus on changing your behaviors or habits rather than just looking at the number on the scales. Your goals might include increasing your physical exercise and eating healthier meals.

Combining exercise with eating fewer calories is the best way to achieve weight loss because you are using a little more energy while also taking in less.

Experts also recommend making your goals specific.

A specific goal might be walking 30 minutes daily, five times a week. The goal is clearly defined and realistic. You might want to walk every day, but something might come up, such as having to stay late at work or a sick day. Trying to exercise five times a week might be more achievable.

Other specific, realistic goals include adding more fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal and replacing full-fat dairy and meat with lower-fat versions. That’s more specific than “eat better” and more realistic than planning to drastically reduce how much you eat.

The CDC suggests focusing on two or three goals at a time.

What’s a safe amount to lose in a month?

Some people initially lose a lot of weight and then find their progress slows. Either way, aiming for just 1–2 pounds per week or 4–8 pounds per month is best.

That monthly rate makes you more likely to keep the weight off long term.

You may have heard the term SMART goals. That stands for specific, meaningful, action-based, realistic, and timely goals. As mentioned above, these goals are clear and more achievable.

They are action-based because you change your behavior, such as moving more and eating fewer calories. And they are time-bound when you track your progress each week or month.

A slow, steady rate of weight loss is 1–2 pounds per week, so losing 12–24 pounds might be a good three-month goal for you, depending on how much weight you want to lose.

After reaching a healthier weight, you may want to shift to maintaining your weight and your new, healthy habits. The NHLBI recommends switching to maintenance after 6 months, meaning you focus on staying the same weight instead of losing more. Maintenance can set the stage for more weight loss later if needed.

Some people may find weight loss medication helpful, especially if they have a lot of weight to lose or are struggling even after adopting healthy habits.

Doctors may prescribe medication to help people with obesity, for example. But other people might not need it or may be at higher risk for side effects.

It’s best to talk with your doctor about whether or not you need weight loss medication.

You can choose among many tools to help you set and track your weight loss progress.

You may want to try a nutrition app that helps you plan meals or track your eating.

The USDA also has a free nutrition calculator called MyPlate. It offers personalized recommendations for how much to eat based on your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has a body weight planner that helps you create eating and exercise plans to help you reach your goal weight.

Other ways to set goals and track your progress include:

  • taking photos to see your progress
  • using a scale to track body weight
  • keeping a journal of your mood, exercise, and eating each day
  • joining a weight loss or support group
  • working with a healthcare team

One of the best ways to achieve progress in weight loss is by setting goals. The most effective goals are specific, meaningful, action-based, realistic, and timely. The best way to lose weight and keep it off long term is to lose no more than 1–2 pounds each week. You can use various tools like apps, journals, photos, and support from others to move toward your goals and track your progress.